Thursday, September 10, 2009

War, famine and Budapestilence

As I ran along the River Danube (as its known by mortals), I thought that, having left Korea exactly one month ago, I had travelled the full extent of the Mongol Empire, going from Korea to the Danube. This would have been a bizarre exercise in and of itself, because only Genghis Khan and unite the disparate locations of Korea, Mongolia and Hungary. At any rate, running along the Danube in Budapest is worth it more for the historical trivia.

Here's another oddity: I ran last night over the Chain Bridge crossing the Danube, crossing from Pest into Buda. In itself, it's not remarkable, but I thought that the name Budapest being derived from Buda and Pest was a ridiculous joke, like on January 1, 1993, when my oldest brother casually informed me that Czechoslovakia was now two countries, Czech and Slovakia.

Seriously, just run or walk over the Chain Bridge at day or night. At night it's more spectacular because of the lights and because the dark obscures anything that isn't remarkable. You see the Buda Castle high above the river bank, as well as St. Matthias Church, a host of other old buildings. On the east side of the river, you can see the Hungarian Parliament, a frightening building that looks like it was built there solely for harsh winter days, or if the winter here is not that harsh, then only for Halloween.

Hungary embraces its Communist past quite well. It took the old headquarters of the state security apparatus and turned it into a relentlessly jarring museum called the House of Terror. Pictures of victims dominate the lobby along with a massive tank, but pictures of tormentors, as they are called, also find place, along with a low-speed elevator ride with a television screen describing how executions took place. Compared with the Korean War Memorial in Seoul, which was roughly contemporaneous, the quality and quantity of footage is far superior. How hard would it be to find a few dozen survivors of the Korean War and translate their experiences? Instead there is a cheesy re-enactment of the war to which people bring babies. At any rate, old Communist statues were collected and assembled somewhere in a park south of Budapest.

I should also say something about the last two hostels where I stayed and their owners. In Istanbul, I stayed at a grungy hippie commune where the owner was a dreadlocked Turk that I thought for a long time was Jamaican. It wasn't until we had coffee on the makeshift balcony of the hostel, with the entry through the window, that I found out that he was actually Turkish. At this hostel, which is large, spotless, clean and cheerful, like a European villa, the owner is a sunglasses-wearing DJ-lookalike who wears soccer jerseys and warmup gear. He is friendly and constantly networking. When I asked if I could make some coffee in the kitchen, he exclaimed "yes! Do it man! Do it!" Sometimes the best pictures are the pictures you take of people. I will not leave without a picture of this man.

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